Beating the Winter Blues

A change in seasons, a change in mood

Winter is not far away and along with cozy log fires, Christmas festivities and extra winter woollies, for some people, the change in weather and darker nights can effect mood negatively, especially those who suffer with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Now the clocks have gone back, for the next few months our days will be shorter, mornings darker and temperatures colder, all of which can culminate in making even the best of us feel low in mood, tired and lacking in motivation, otherwise known as suffering the ‘winter blues’.

 

Food and Mood 

What we eat can have a big impact on our mood. If our body is lacking in certain vital nutrients or chemicals from essential food groups, our mood and mental health can suffer greatly. During the winter months our diets tend to change slightly, as many people turn to more comfort based, winter warming foods to get us through the cold, darker evenings. This change in diet isn’t always great, as the foods we tend to lean towards to give us comfort are not usually the healthiest or ‘mood friendly’ foods in the longer term.

The ‘Feel good’ chemical

Serotonin is a ‘feel good’ chemical found naturally in the body that affects many bodily functions including mood, appetite and sleep. Low serotonin levels in the body have long been associated with low mood and depression, with many anti-depressant medications working by boosting the body’s serotonin levels. Why not try boosting these levels naturally through food, which is a great way to help banish the winter blues. Foods which indirectly raise serotonin levels include carbohydrate rich foods such as brown rice, porridge, whole wheat pasta, bread and starchy vegetables. These foods trigger the body to release insulin, which allows an amino acid called Tryptophan to enter the brain, where it is then used to make serotonin.

Just 28g of mixed nuts a day can have significant health benefits
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Nuts

Nuts are in abundance in the lead up to Christmas and are certainly helpful in the fight against low mood. Almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts are particularly beneficial in helping boost serotonin levels. Research has shown that people who eat nuts have higher levels of serotonin compared to non nut eaters and just one ounce (about 28g) of mixed nuts a day can have significant health benefits, so get that nut cracker out!

Coffee

Coffee is the world’s most popular drink and in the UK alone, 70 million cups of it are drunk daily. That’s a lot of coffee and therefore a lot of caffeine! There is very mixed research on whether coffee and caffeine consumption leads to depression, however whether its effects are negative or positive seem to be connected with the amount consumed. Caffeine in smaller amounts can actually help raise the body’s serotonin levels, but in large amounts we can become dependent on it and it actually increases our body’s need for serotonin. This helps explain why people who drink multiple cups of coffee a day, who then suddenly stop, can become low in mood and suffer with heightened anxiety; caffeine is a drug after all.

The research overall tends to suggest that drinking coffee is beneficial to mood and those people that drink 2-3 cups a day are less likely to be depressed. Why not try adding Delamere Dairy’s goat’s milk to your coffee for a wonderfully tasty and aromatic winter warm up. With goats’ milk being higher in selenium than cows’ milk, and selenium known to help boost mood and reduce depressive symptoms, it will give you an extra boost in the mood department!

Magnesium

Despite this being the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, it doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves in relation to its importance to health. It is responsible for over 300 biochemical activities in the human body, so it goes without saying it has a massive importance for mental health. Science tells us there is a link between low magnesium levels in the body and depression and as magnesium has become one of the most common mineral deficiencies in the UK, it certainly can be very helpful in the fight against the winter blues. 

The exact reason why is still being explored, however we know that magnesium has a massive part to play in the release and uptake of serotonin and so helps in stabilizing mood. As an added bonus it can also be very helpful for those suffering constipation (which is a reason in itself for low mood!!) as it draws water into the bowel helping to form a more passable stool! Foods high in magnesium include bananas, brown rice, spinach, figs, avocado, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds and mackerel so try and have a little of one each day to help keep your mood up.

Beans glorious Beans

Lentils and beans are an excellent source of the vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, which has been shown to improve mood and brain function, so it can be helpful improving those motivation levels! Low levels of thiamine in the body are associated with higher risk of low mood and depression and as our body doesn’t store it, if we don’t eat it regularly it can soon diminish. Other foods high in B1 include sunflower seeds, barley, green peas, rice, oats, macadamia nuts, trout and pork. Winter is great soup season, so both lentils and beans can easily be added to all types of soups and casseroles.

Eat like they do in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean diet is not really a ‘diet’ at all, but a lifestyle of eating a healthy and balanced diet that includes a range of fresh foods including nuts, fish, olive oil, beans, fruit and vegetables. I know what you are thinking, a trip to the Mediterranean would definitely fight off the winter blues, but if that’s not possible, then the next best thing is to eat how they do in the Mediterranean. Studies have shown that consuming a Mediterranean based diet helps support optimal mental health by reducing the risk of low mood and depression. 

The Mediterranean diet is high in omega 3 fatty acids
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Although we can’t be certain exactly why this type of diet improves mental health status, it is thought to be linked to the fact that the Mediterranean diet is high in Omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and some beans) and other nutrients that are often not consumed in the same amounts in our Western diet. A deficit of Omega 3 fatty acids in the body is associated with depression and according to some studies, you are more likely to suffer with persistent low mood and depression if you are not a fish eater, as your Omega 3 fatty acids are generally lower if you are not consuming it through fish. The Mediterranean is also the land of the olive and is the place synonymous with olive oil, which is consumed regularly and widely in the Mediterranean. Olive oil has huge health benefits including helping to reduce depressive symptoms, so don’t be afraid to drizzle a little on salads, soups and bread to get a taste of the Mediterranean during the winter months.

Let’s talk alcohol

At this time of the year, with the run up to Christmas, it won’t be long before Christmas festivities and parties are in full swing and to most people this means one thing will be on the menu…….alcohol. Without wanting to put a dampener on the upcoming Christmas spirit, there is one thing to remember when consuming alcohol this year, especially if you are one of the many who are prone to low mood and depression and that is that alcohol IS a depressant. This means that ANY amount of alcohol that you drink, makes you more likely to suffer with low mood and depressive thoughts (despite what you may think at the time of consumption!!). So try diluting your wine with water or tonic, or make every other drink a non-alcoholic one, to cut down on the units consumed. You will thank me the following day!!

To skip or not to skip?

Remember, that it’s not always what we eat that can have a big impact on our health and mood but HOW we eat. In other words, our eating behaviours can massively influence things like digestion, bowel function and mood, including how we feel mentally during the winter. One eating behaviour that can really affect our mood and motivation levels is skipping meals. Whether it be dashing out the door without breakfast, working through your lunch hour or getting in too late to eat a proper dinner, all of these habits, which many people fall into it, have a detrimental effect on mood. If you are already suffering from general winter blues and you skip meals too, this is really going to make you feel worse and very ‘down in the dumps’. When you skip meals your blood sugar levels become imbalanced leading to fluctuating moods and depressive symptoms.

If you know you won’t be eating for a while, at least make sure you are eating foods for breakfast or lunch that will better sustain and balance your blood sugar levels better and keep your mood stable. For example oats in the form of porridge or eggs for breakfast, a lentil or bean salad for lunch or a combination of a protein and fibre based snack will all help. Why not try a slice of Delamere goats’ cheese on a rye cracker as a great transportable snack or lunch option!

Be cautious of snacks or ‘breakfast bars’ that are sold as ‘healthy’, as these often contain a lot of sugar that will spike your sugar levels as opposed to stabilizing them, which could make your mood go off the ‘grumpy scale’. So the moral to the story is DONT skip meals, especially breakfast, if you want to have a more stabilized mood.

Keep hydrated

You might not realise it, but being dehydrated can have a big impact on mood and even mild dehydration affects mood and cognitive function badly. During the colder winter months we don’t always feel like drinking water and it’s easy to forget to drink throughout the day when we are so busy. Dehydration can affect everyone, whether you are doing a desk job, or a physical based job you need to stay hydrated. To put this another way, around 75% of your brain is made of water and if you become dehydrated (especially regularly) there is evidence to say your brain tissue shrinks, which is definitely not going to do much for enhancing mood! The brain is very sensitive to even small changes in water levels and low water levels certainly cause low mood, lack of motivation and poor concentration, so keep hydrated if you want better mood and a bigger brain!

The looming winter and darker months can cause us all to feel low in mood at times, but implementing changes in your diet now, and ideally all year round, can help you keep on top of those winter blues.

 RESOURCES:

  • Human Brain Mapping, 2011. Dehydration affects brain structure and function in healthy adolescents.
  • Current Pharmaceutical Design, 2015. Coffee and depression: a short review of literature.
  • Annals of Neurology, 2013. Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A Meta-analysis
  • Addiction, 2011. Alcohol and Depression
  • Pharmacological Reports, 2013. Magnesium in depression
  • Current Gastroenterology Reports, 2013. What Micronutrient Deficiencies Should Be Considered in Distinct Neurological Disorders?

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